That '80s Show
The press remembers Reagan, not always fondly.
BY JAMES TARANTO
The American Spectator, February 2008
This past fall, the New York Times ended TimesSelect, its experiment in charging for online content. The paper's stable of op-ed columnists, hidden for two years, had a worldwide audience again. To readers, it looked like one of those "Unfrozen Caveman" sketches on Saturday Night Live, as a trio of the paper's columnists went at each other over a speech delivered more than a quarter-century earlier.
David Brooks, the paper's resident conservative, devoted his November 9 column to correcting a "distortion" that "has spread like a weed over the past few months":
An increasing number of left-wing commentators assert that Reagan kicked off his 1980 presidential campaign with a states' rights speech in Philadelphia [Miss.] to send a signal to white racists that he was on their side.
"The truth," Brooks noted, is more complicated. Reagan had planned to spend the week after the 1980 GOP convention courting black voters:
But there was another event going on that week, the Neshoba County Fair, seven miles southwest of Philadelphia. . . . Mississippi was a state that Republican strategists hoped to pick up. . . . So the decision was made to go to Neshoba. . . . Reagan's pollster Richard Wirthlin urged him not to go, but Reagan angrily countered that once the commitment had been made, he couldn't back out.
The Reaganites then had an internal debate over whether to do the Urban League speech and then go to the fair, or to do the fair first. They decided to do the fair first, believing it would send the wrong message to go straight from the Urban League to Philadelphia, Miss.
At Philadelphia, Reagan "spoke mostly about inflation and the economy." His "states' rights" comment, in context, is utterly benign: "Programs like education and others should be turned back to the states and local communities with the tax sources to fund them. I believe in states' rights. I believe in people doing as much as they can at the community level and the private level."
Brooks conceded that it was "callous, at least, to use the phrase 'states' rights' in any context in Philadelphia," and that Reagan failed to do "something wonderful" by mentioning civil rights in his speech there. "Still," argued Brooks, "the agitprop version . . .--that Reagan opened his campaign with an appeal to racism--is a distortion":
It's spread by people who, before making one of the most heinous charges imaginable, couldn't even take 10 minutes to look at the evidence. It posits that there was a master conspiracy to play on the alleged Klan-like prejudices of American voters, when there is no evidence of that conspiracy.
And who are those people? Brooks was too discreet to name names, but it was obvious that he had in mind colleague Paul Krugman, who had employed the Reagan-in-Philadelphia trope at least four times:
- Sept. 19, 2005: "And he launched his 1980 campaign with a pro-states'-rights speech in Philadelphia, Miss., a small town whose only claim to fame was the 1964 murder ofthree civil rights workers."
- July 24, 2006: "Don't forget that in 1980, the sainted Ronald Reagan began his presidential campaign with a speech on states' rights in Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964."
- Aug. 24, 2007: "Reagan didn't begin his 1980 campaign with a speech on supply-side economics, he began it--at the urging of a young Trent Lott--with a speech supporting states' rights delivered just outside Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964."
- Sept. 24, 2007: "Thus Ronald Reagan, who began his political career by campaigning against California's Fair Housing Act, started his 1980 campaign with a speech supporting states' rights delivered just outside Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil rights workers were murdered."
Krugman is nothing if not unoriginal. His colleague Bob Herbert scooped him by more than eight years, citing this slur way back on June 20, 1997, and then again on February 10, 2000, May 1, 2000, December 12, 2002, July 18, 2005, October 6, 2005, September 28, 2006, and September 25, 2007.
But whereas even his fellow liberals disdain the dreary Herbert, Krugman, whose insufferable sanctimony is enlivened by a feral rage, is a hero of today's liberal-left. Almost certainly it was he whom Brooks had in mind. And it was Krugman who took to his Times blog--another post-TimesSelect innovation--the day after Brooks's column in opposition to the "campaign to exonerate Ronald Reagan."
Krugman's blog post, which didn't mention Brooks by name, was not a rebuttal but an effort to change the subject. It said nothing about the Philadelphia speech, instead listing other Reagan statements and actions that Krugman found objectionable--from criticizing the Voting Rights Act to opposing the Martin Luther King holiday (a position on which the Gipper later reversed himself)--and sarcastically ending every paragraph with "It was all just an innocent mistake."
Yet another new feature of the Times web is that much of the paper's archives are now available free. I wondered if a previous generation of liberal Times columnists had been as preoccupied with the Philadelphia speech, and as uncharitable toward Reagan, as their progeny. The answer turned out to be no on both counts. The speech was a much bigger deal to liberal Times columnists in 2007 than it had been in 1980.
Anthony Lewis wrote about the speech once, on September 22, 1980. Lewis was highly critical of Reagan, but unlike Krugman, he was willing to allow that the candidate's motives might not have been invidious:
Now there are two ways of looking at Reagan's decision to go to Philadelphia, Miss., and speak about states' rights. He may have done it to court the votes of whites not yet reconciled to the changes in the Southern way of life. Or he may have done it in ignorance of the symbol.
Neither interpretation can commend Reagan to anyone who cares about civil rights. For a man prominent in public life for many years not to know what happened in Philadelphia, Miss., would not be a plus.
Tom Wicker wrote that when the candidate "spoke early in his campaign at Philadelphia, Miss., without mentioning the names of three civil rights workers murdered there a quarter-century ago, it was clear that his campaign appeal would not be to blacks or liberals." But Wicker, whose column appeared Nov. 18, 1988, was referring not to Reagan but to Michael Dukakis. The Reagan speech seemed to have escaped Wicker's notice.
Why does Reagan's speech loom so much larger in today's liberal imagination than it did when Reagan was alive and active in politics? Because today's liberals yearn for their elders' moral authority. Tony Lewis and Tom Wicker were civil rights advocates when it mattered. Paul Krugman was 11 when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law. For someone Krugman's age, it has never required any courage to be a man of the left, and there has never been a cause on which the liberal-left turned out to be clearly on the right side.
Krugman has no business browbeating anyone about civil rights, and his badmouthing of Reagan is especially rich. Reagan's putative racism was not offensive enough to deter Krugman from taking a job in 1982 as a staff economist for the president's Council of Economic Advisers. In 2002, Krugman, who had been attacking Enron, ended up with egg on his face when it emerged that he had taken $50,000 from the company years earlier to serve on an advisory board. He was not yet working for the Times, but he did write a puff piece about Enron for Fortune during this period. Who'd have thought the former Enron adviser was a former Reagan aide too?
November saw another '80s flashback, when the National Alliance to End Homelessness issued a report on veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, attracting coverage from the Times, the Associated Press, and other outlets. This is from the AP's coverage:
Homelessness is not just a problem among middle-age and elderly veterans. Younger veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are trickling into shelters and soup kitchens seeking services, treatment or help with finding a job. . . .
Some advocates say the early presence of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan at shelters does not bode well for the future. It took roughly a decade for the lives of Vietnam veterans to unravel to the point that they started showing up among the homeless. Advocates worry that intense and repeated deployments leave newer veterans particularly vulnerable.
"We're going to be having a tsunami of them eventually because the mental health toll from this war is enormous," said Daniel Tooth, director of veterans affairs for Lancaster County, Pa.
A look at the numbers makes clear that there will be no such tsunami. Because far fewer troops are in Iraq and Afghanistan than were in Vietnam, the current wars will produce far fewer veterans. As of 2000, according to census data, nearly 8.4 million "Vietnam era" (August 1964 through April 1975) veterans were alive. The figure for the post-Gulf War period (August 1990 through April 2000) was barely 3 million--and this was a younger population, so that a smaller proportion would have died by 2000. The size of the active-duty military shrank drastically in the '90s and has not recovered (although the services have partly compensated by calling up National Guardsmen and reservists).
What about the "early presence" of Iraq and Afghanistan vets in homeless shelters? This almost certainly is entirely a function of media stereotypes.
Homelessness itself did not become a media cause célèbre until Reagan's presidency--i.e., "roughly a decade" after America fled Vietnam. To illustrate the point, the day the report was issued, I searched for the phrase "plight of the homeless" in the Times archives, which, in an unwitting memorial to Reagan, are divided into two eras: 1851-1980 and 1981 to the present. The former, 130-year period turned up 28 results, of which all but five predate America's involvement in Vietnam. The latter, 27-year period produced 207 results.
The AP states that "it took roughly a decade" before Vietnam vets "started showing up among the homeless." America fled Vietnam in 1973, and sure enough, the first mention of "homeless veterans" in the Times's post-1980 archive is in 1983, almost exactly a decade later.
But most Vietnam veterans were discharged before 1973. If the "roughly a decade" assertion is true, they should have begun showing up in the shelters in the middle to late 1970s. Yet the last pre-Reagan reference to "homeless veterans" in the Times was in 1954, in a review of a novel set in Germany in 1948.
What actually happened is that roughly a decade after America left Vietnam, Reagan became president, and the media noticed the homeless in general and homeless vets in particular, using them to paint the conservative president as heartless. So hardy is the stereotype of the "homeless vet" that journalists are projecting it into the future. We are now reading "reports" about a "tsunami" of them that has yet to materialize.
When Reagan died, even many of his former foes were full of praise for him. John Kerry, who in 1988 described the Reagan years as a period of "moral darkness," in 2004 praised him for having "shaped one of the greatest victories of freedom." The persistence of anti-Reagan myths and stereotypes, however, shows that however fondly they may remember the man, many in the media still abominate what he stood for.
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